In November, 1997 negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aspires to regulate the production of greenhouse gases, stalled when Europeans and Americans failed to agree on what might count as a carbon sink. Americans wanted to tally carbon stored in crops, soils, and woods, while Europeans refused to let Americans continue to belch out as much carbon as they could combust if only they could connive enough biotic blotters to sponge up the mess. They wanted Americans to get out of their damn cars or at least pay the same exorbitant prices for gasoline that Europeans have to.
So the talks broke down. Americans went back to their multi-car garages and revved up their SUVs. Europeans retired to their smug condescension over ill-disciplined Americans with their tendency to identify culture with extended-cab F150 pickups and all-terrain tires. One can almost see the French intelligentsia sniffing over their sagging volumes of fusty Foucault and dreary Derrida.
There may, however, be a solution. The moribund American publishing industry should turn seriously green, and not with envy. Paper is almost half carbon. Books are carbon bullion. Bookstores and libraries are carbon sequestration banks. Published books - the bigger the better - may be the missing carbon sinks the U.S. seeks. The more books we buy, the more miles we can drive. That's a formula that should set publishing's tachometer racing. Buy a book, save the planet.
Do the numbers. Approximately 45% of modern paper is carbon. A book weighing a kilo holds 450 grams of carbon. A back-of-the-envelope calculation (actually a pile-on-the-bathroom-scale reckoning) of my own humble oeuvre (12 books, more or less) weighs 10 kilos. This may not seem like much - I harvest a heavier bucket of citrus every morning to make juice - but everyone can stockpile books, even in Maine and Iowa where lemons are more often found on used car lots. If a modest 100,000 people bought my entire list, America would have proudly amassed a million kilos of processed carbon, roughly what the residents of Phoenix release every morning from gasoline just to get to work. That trees are minced to make paper is irrelevant; or rather, the whole point. The trees grow back. The books stay.
It's a virtuous circle. The more books the public buys, the more robust the publishing industry. The more vigorous publishing becomes, the more people will be enticed to write, and the more they will make from it. A proper government would promulgate policies to encourage such a process. A proper government would enact carbon tax credits for those who buy the goods, and dole out carbon subsidies to those who produce them. Houses would then swell with shelving and groan under the weight of collected works. Book superstores would sprout like mushrooms. Libraries would proliferate like Circle Ks. Publishing's chronic lament that it is economically marginal would vanish overnight. The energy industry would buy up publishers to complement its existing distribution networks. Gas stations would include self-serve, buy-at-the-pump paperback dispensaries. Like a ringed benzene molecule, an industry would close the cycle of carbon spewed out and carbon sopped up.
The real beauty of the scheme, however, is that no one actually has to read the books. In fact, there is a case for leaving them in their shrink-wrapped cellophane (which adds its own, admittedly infinitesimal, carbon increment). Here is an opportunity for deep(-time) discounting. Sure, the Europeans will squeal, but they can hardly object to America's amassing of both carbon and culture. After all, the French have managed to make their own "cultural" creations exempt from World Trade Organization rules. Even they can't bare-facedly denounce a massive expansion of American book publishing as harmful to either trade or ecology. If enough people bought it, for example, Al Gore's Earth in the Balance might be itself a practical solution to the problems he expounds. In France's case, more books bought and fewer seriously read might actually help the world get on with its business.
The open road and the unopened book - it's America. We can fill up our tanks with all the gasoline we want, so long as we fill up the trunks with books. Let the Kyoto negotiations begin anew.